One of the best stories of 2011 was how Republicans and Democrats united in more than a dozen states to increase school choice. Then there's Pennsylvania, where a few Republicans joined the teachers unions to kill modest reforms that would have helped poor students in the state's worst schools.
Republican Governor Tom Corbett campaigned last year on expanding school choice, but he's been undone by his Republican-controlled legislature and his own diffident leadership. The state House and Senate passed separate legislation earlier this year to improve education options for low-income kids. Too bad they couldn't get their acts together, literally.
During the spring the House approved a bill increasing tax credits to $200 million from $75 million for businesses that contribute to scholarship organizations. These private scholarships help some students, but their impact is limited because they rarely subsidize full tuition at a private school. The unions didn't vigorously oppose the House bill because they wanted to save their ammo for the bigger threat that was looming in the Senate: vouchers.
Senate Republicans and Democrats came together in the fall to rebuff the union assault and pass a pilot voucher program that would be phased in over seven years. Only low-income students who attend schools ranking in the bottom 5% of the state on standardized tests would be eligible for vouchers during the first year. The program would be expanded during the second year to include private-school students who live in districts with failing schools.
Many of these students receive scholarships from private schools and organizations, so making them eligible for vouchers would free up scholarship money for middle-class students who can't afford private schools on their own and don't qualify for scholarships. After seven years, low-income students at public schools where half of students perform below grade level on standardized tests would be eligible.
The vouchers could help up to 70,000 kids escape failing and often dangerous schools. Poor kids in urban school districts like Philadelphia, where most of the state's failing schools are located, would benefit the most. Only about 70% of Philadelphia students graduate, and fewer than 50% score at or above grade-level.
Unions played their usual false tune that vouchers steal money from public schools, though what they really fear is that vouchers would break their monopoly control over public education. Under the voucher bill, public schools would come out ahead financially since they would be educating fewer students while still receiving local property tax revenues for kids in their district who attend private schools on vouchers.
Alas, House Speaker Samuel Smith and Majority Leader Mike Turzai bowed to union pressure and refused to put the Senate bill or even a modified voucher program up for a vote. Instead, on the last night of the legislative session, they rushed out a bill that expanded tax credits for scholarships and increased oversight of charter schools. Rank-and-file members of both parties revolted against the slap-dash packaging and sank the legislation.
Pennsylvania's school choice setback offers a lesson for reform-minded Republican Governors elsewhere who may be tempted to let their legislatures do the heavy-lifting. Big reforms require strong executive leadership and engagement. It's not enough to cheer from the sidelines